Thursday, October 3, 2019

Climbing Up the Learning Curve: Ten Things I’ve Learned on my Horse Farm

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to live on a farm or at least in a rural area.  When I was young, we visited my grandparents on their farm in North Carolina several times a year.   I loved going to the garden with my grandfather to pick strawberries or heading to a nearby farm to see horses.  Even at a very young age, I always felt a sense of peace when I saw fields of corn or cows in a pasture.  I know that my dream of living on a farm was born during those family vacations in rural North Carolina. 

Barn apartment
Since I was raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC and knew exactly nothing about farm ownership, I wanted to try living on a horse farm before seriously considering purchasing one.  I rented a small apartment in a barn on a horse farm in Laytonsville.  Yes, I lived IN the barn, above the horse stalls.  I LOVED it.  Hearing the horses munch, stomp and snort during the night was like music to my ears. 

Barn apartment

After nearly two years of living in the barn, I felt I was ready to strike out on my own.  When a nearby farm that abuts a County park with seven miles of trails went up for sale, I quickly signed on the dotted line.  And so Copper Penny Farm became a reality.

My friend, Phoebe decided to board her horse, Deja on my farm.  Phoebe became my indispensable right hand since she was raised on a horse farm.  I truly couldn’t have gotten my farm and boarding operation up and running without her.

I’ve owned the farm for over five years and have learned more things that I can count.  However, I sorted through my acquired knowledge and chose the 10 biggest lessons I learned as a horse farm owner. 

1.  $$$$$$ - The very first lesson I learned after purchasing the farm was to always keep my credit card and checkbook handy.   I had to open my wallet extra wide to purchase a new tractor and mower ($$$$$$!!!).  Since I needed a place to keep the tractor, I bought a large shed ($$$$!!).  Of course, I needed to have a base of crusher run stone for the shed (more $$$).   And that was just in the first few weeks!
Putting in the base for the tractor shed

2.  “Money can’t buy happiness but it can buy a tractor, which is pretty much the same thing.”   There isn’t anything on the farm that is more useful than my tractor.  I use it almost every day to do chores such as de-pooping (notice the use of the highly technical farm term) fields, turning the compost pile and mowing the pastures.

My farm fleet
Like everything else, I knew nothing about buying and operating a tractor.  I did a lot of research, compared prices and considered dealer financing options.  I chose a 32-horsepower John Deere tractor with loader and mower.  I admit that it took a while to learn to operate the tractor.  "Thud!  #$!%#$%!" became a familiar refrain when I misjudged distance and bumped the loader or mower into fence posts, gates, buildings, etc. in those first few weeks (okay, I confess.  I still do it sometimes). 

Huge learning curve aside, when I climb up into the seat and start the engine, I know I am truly a farmer!!

3.  Holy Sh..!  An average horse will produce as much as 50 pounds of manure a day or nine tons a year.  I have four horses on the farm so that's -- oh heck, I don't want to even think about all those tons of poop!

For most of the year, we pick (clean) the fields daily to reduce internal parasite contamination, eliminate breeding habitats for flies and maintain pasture availability (horses won't eat where they've pooped!).  There are only two stalls in the barn but if Queenie and Deja have been in for 24 hours, it can feel like I'm cleaning 20 stalls.

They are sort of the Oscar Madison and Felix Unger (The Odd Couple) of the horse world.  Deja politely leaves her piles and urine in one corner of the stall.  Cleaning her stall takes about 10 minutes.  After a night in the barn, Queenie's stall always looks like there's been a manure explosion.  Queenie has Cushings disease so she drinks a LOT of water.  Since what goes in must come out, I have to remove buckets of wet sawdust after Queenie spends the day in her stall.  On average, it takes me about 30 minutes to clean her stall. 

4.  Smokin!  We dump the 200 pounds of poop a day in a compost pile in the back pasture.  I like to use the tractor for cleanup because it's much easier on my back.  However, there are many muddy days when I can't use the tractor so we pull several muck buckets with about 100 pounds of manure out to the compost pile.

Google "composting horse manure" and you will find lots of articles such as Nine Steps to Composting Horse Manure.  NINE?  I use the "dump, turn, decay" method.  We dump the manure in the same pile for several months.  I use the tractor loader to turn the compost regularly.

Depending on conditions, turning the compost can result in a LOT of smoke due to the heat generated by the decay process.  My son was in the barn one day when I used the front loader to turn the compost.  He thought the tractor was on fire!
When the pile reaches about six feet high, I start a new one while continuing to turn the other pile(s).  It takes about 12-18 months for the manure to break down completely into usable compost.

5.  Neither Rain nor Snow nor Gloom of Night – This well-known saying for the Post Office definitely applies to horse farm owners.  In 2018, however, I need to amend the motto by adding, “Nor Mud.”  Record rainfall created swamp-like conditions in many areas of the farm. 

Besides mud, I’ve trudged to the barn through blistering heat, torrential rains, howling winds, subzero temperatures and of course, snow.  Adverse weather conditions sometimes create problems that require good old-fashioned farmer ingenuity. 

A tunnel from the house to the barn after the 2016 "Snowzilla" storm 
Take the “Snowzilla” storm in 2016, for example.  Almost three feet of snow made completing daily chores a challenge, to say the least.   

The combination of rapidly falling snow and high winds meant the run-in shed offered little protection for Ace and Newton, the horses that were out 24/7.  Normally the run-in stays dry but during Snowzilla, the shelter was quickly filling with snow. Since Ace and Newton were both older (27 and 30), I struggled to figure out how to keep them warm and dry.  Panic is the mother of invention……

Ace and Newton were pasture buddies for 15 years and Queenie and Deja for 5 years, so I decided to take a chance on putting boys in one stall and girls in the other.  I stayed in the barn for some time (brrr!) to make sure everyone would get along but doubling up was no big deal to the horses. Luckily, they were roomies for only 24 hours.

Deja and Queenie snuggled up for a snowy night. 

 6.  To Each His/Her Own -- Diet, that is.  Every horse on the farm has different dietary needs, including supplements and medicines.  There are times I feel like a mad scientist, mixing different feeds, medications and supplements and making warm feed mashes in the winter.  Queenie gets three medications, two supplements and two  types of feed.  Thunder is on two medications, three supplements and two types of feed. 

But all the complicated meals don’t begin to compare to Newton’s.  His diet was unique because of his age (30).  He had experienced a significant over-winter weight loss once before he came to the farm and I was determined that it would not happen again.  Three times a day, he ate five pounds of food comprised of high-fat feed, rice bran, beet pulp and oil.  I fed him four times a day in the winter.  Newton was always a happy boy at meal times and he looked sleek and healthy until the day he died.

7Research, read, repeat Purchasing the farm meant I was suddenly responsible for the care and feeding of four horses.   I needed a zero-to-sixty education so I read and researched constantly (and still do) about the basics of caring for horses and running a boarding operation.  The learning process is ongoing because problems are the one constant on a farm. 

I’ve researched such varied topics as pasture management, Cushing’s disease, founder, optimal diets for older horses, laminitis and---get ready for this—"poops that look like a string of sausages.” That’s exactly what Newton’s manure piles looked like. Even the vet said that he’d never seen anything like it but as long as he was “eliminating,” I shouldn’t worry about it. I decided based on how Newton died (I’ll spare you the details), that he may have had a growth in his colon.

8.  "Horses are born.  Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to find new and interesting ways in which to commit suicide."  As any owner will tell you, horses have an uncanny ability to injure themselves.  You can take every single precaution and a horse will come in from the pasture with a gash on a leg or a swollen eye.  And there is an unwritten rule among horses, that they will injure themselves or become ill on a weekend so that the vet's barn call fee is nearly twice as high. 

And so it was that I opened the barn door on a Saturday morning expecting to see the usual empty barn aisle.  Instead I was staring directly at Queenie’s big behind.   She had broken out of her stall and wreaked havoc in the barn in her search for all things edible.  Queenie knocked everything off the shelves, took the lids off all of the feed cans, threw two bales of hay around (they were still tied or I’m sure she would have eaten both) and uncovered a bowl of soaking beet pulp (she ate part of it). 

Given how food-focused Queenie is, she must have felt like she was in heaven. But I knew that the consequences of her gluttonous behavior could be hellish.  Depending on how much she ate, she was at high risk for laminitis and colic. And so one very expensive emergency vet call later, Queenie was fine and her stall now has two stall guards and a lock. My vet says her stall door looks like a New York City apartment.  No more escapes unless she’s Houdini. 
I've taken lots of precautions to prevent Queenie from breaking out of her stall again. 

9.  Love Hurts – Fortunately for the horses and their owners, I love and care for all of the horses as if they are my own.  But that’s the very reason that losing a horse is so painful for me.   I’m always a little reluctant to tell people that two horses on my farm have died in the past five years  It wasn’t negligence; just a function of providing care for senior horses.  


Ace died of cancer and Newton died suddenly on one of the coldest nights of January, 2018.  I went to the barn around 10 pm to check on the horses and found Newton shivering in the run in.  I fixed up the barn aisle so he could be inside and hopefully, a little warmer.  At 7 am the next morning, I found the barn door was blocked.  I went around through a stall and discovered that Newton had suffered some catastrophic event and simply fell over in the barn aisle and died.  I just threw myself on his body and sobbed because I truly loved that goofy old horse. 


And I will answer the one question that people always ask.  What do you do with the body?  Some owners bury their horses on the property but it obviously requires some serious excavating equipment.  There are also cremating services that pick up the body and return the ashes a few weeks later.  Newton's and Ace’s owners opted for composting.  A farm about 25 miles away picks up the horse and composts it on their property.  “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes…..”

10.  What’s in a Name? --  A few months before he came to the farm, Ace had surgery to remove cancerous tumors in his sheath (the pocket of skin that protects the horse’s penis).  A few days after Ace arrived, I noticed an abscess on his sheath.  For the next week, I had to put an antibiotic cream on the area and it healed well. 

And so I got in the habit of checking the area every few days to make sure that an abscess or the cancer did not reoccur.  For my due diligence, the barn ladies jokingly gave me the nickname, “Pecker Checker.”  I suppose there are worse monikers (though I doubt it). 

A year later, my twice-weekly checks revealed significant swelling in THAT area.  Ace’s cancer had returned.  The vet performed a second surgery and again removed the tumor and implanted chemo capsules.  Ace did well and Queenie and I continued to enjoy many rides with Ace and his owner, Laury.

A few months later, I found Ace down in the field and it took a while to get him up.  I called the vet who determined that Ace’s cancer had spread and there wasn’t anything that could be done for him.  Laury was in Florida so I called her and she made the most difficult decision for a pet owner.  The vet put Ace down in May, 2016.

With Ace’s death, I gave up the title of “Pecker Checker.”  Okay, not entirely.  I keep an eye on Thunder since he is 30 years old.